Band Life, Chapter 2

In the last chapter, I mentioned virtual bands and I feel like I should explain a little bit about them as well as tell you why I still want a real life band when I’ve got a virtual one.

I have been a part of a musical community called Songfight for many years now. At its most basic, Songfight is a musical competition where bands are given song titles (like “Brioche, Actually”, “I’m Eating A Wasp”, and “Hooker Pumps”. Yes, there are much better titles too.) and have about 10 days in which to make a complete song for that title. The songs are then posted on the web for all to hear. There is a vote for which song is the best and a winner is named. That winner gets nothing and then we do it all over again. But beyond that, lies a forum where musicians from around the world discuss their lives and just about every facet of music. Back in 2003, this all seemed very alluring and so I lurked around the forum for a while before finally entering my first song into the competition under my new moniker Niveous. The song was a quaint little g^2 (that stands for “guy and guitar”) number about atheism called “I Don’t Believe You” and I felt pretty good about it. I had spun some pretty good lyrics (I used the word demonology, that at least earns some cool points) and I had sung pretty well for something recorded in the bathroom of a dingy Brooklyn apartment while trying not to wake the children. That’s when I learned about one of the other parts of Songfight, the one that they don’t put on the advertisements- the reviews.

The site is not called Song Fight for nothing. Some days entering a song into a song into the competition is the equivalent of jumping a lion’s cage while wearing a pair of boxers made of meat. The musicians of Songfight are very knowledgeable and very opinionated but you have to have some bulldog skin to deal with some of the criticism (though we have mellowed over the years). What I didn’t realize back then is that I had no production values whatsoever. For instance, I think if you listen to the song, you can hear a dog barking in the background. That’s a no-no. Plus, I didn’t understand things like noise removal or not to stand too close to the microphone. In writing this blog I went to find the reviews for that song but the internet has lost them forever and I am luckier for it. Sadly, you don’t get to revel in the brutality but you can imagine it something like me being told to toss my guitar into a fireplace. It wasn’t really that bad but it stung like it was. 134 votes came in during the “I Don’t Believe You” fight and not a one was for Niveous. Two weeks later, I tried my luck again. I entered the “Put Cindy Back on the Bus” fight. I received one vote and it might have been from me. Even the guy who called himself Lightning Ear Fart and made scary noises behind clips from Gumby got two votes. What made me hang around despite the verbal thrashing?

I made friends.

This chapter is about one of them- Eric aka The Voice Inside Your Head. No, he’s not an imaginary friend. That’s just his stage name. TVIYH, for short.

As I struggled to get a grip on the nuances of production (I still suck at production ten years later) and tried to climb up the ranks at Songfight (third song I entered got 3 votes, still less than the fart guy but progress!), I found fellow musicians who were willing to give good advice and I enjoyed talking to and quickly became by first real online friends. It was a strange new concept, the idea of having friends that you would never actually see or would meet (though I would meet most of them eventually). Hell, I didn’t even know what most of these people looked like, except for little profile pictures on the forum, or those who had pages on that newfangled website called Myspace. But still, here I was talking to these people every day. One such person that I made a connection with was a bassist from Pennsylvania who called himself TVIYH. After many days of chatting, we decided to collaborate on some music. The two of us became a virtual band, combining our talents over the web by passing tracks back and forth until we had made our songs.

I being Ernie and he being Eric, we decided to name our band- Silent E. Yes, there are no silent E’s in either of those names but we thought we were being clever. And I can admit that I was swayed by the fact that I had 2 little boys who watched PBS’ Between the Lions where Silent E was a master criminal who could turn a twin into twine. We set out to make our first Songfight song- “So Kind Stacey”. Lyrically, it was not my best work. Production-wise, it was a disaster of epic proportions and it was all my fault. I had decided to try and put on a tougher gruffer voice for the song and I was going to scream and growl and be metal. There were some big flaws in that plan. The biggest flaw being that I made the vocal recording while hidden in the fileroom at work. There’s nothing like trying to do your best Iron Maiden scream while trying not to be heard by your co-workers or get busted for slacking at the job. Needless to say, this was a catastrophe. Eric tried his best to make it work but I had screwed up big time and Songfight let us have it. Not only did it get zero votes, it was murdered in the reviews. Murdered.

TVIYH & I were undeterred and decided to try again. Eight days later, we released our second song “Fear is Free”. A week isn’t the longest time for a band to get its act together but we attempted. Sure, “Fear is Free” again received not a solitary vote but at least we made a song that we didn’t feel so bad about and didn’t get destroyed on the board. In November of 2004, we put out our third Songfight song “I am Tempted”, a song about the desire to leave the US because Bush had been re-elected. The song got mixed reviews and no votes but it seemed like we were moving in the right direction as most of the reviews said that we had potential but needed better production (I get that a lot).

Here’s one particularly interesting review:

I have a vision of a daycare care giver. She is sitting in the middle of a circle of children reading a story. One of the children is playing with a hand grenade. The woman leaves in a panic. This is what I would liken to moving away at a time like this. It’s walking away from a huge responsibility. You can’t stockpile weapons, then let an overgrown child with no sense control them. Now about your song. I liked it.

But Silent E never did put out another Songfight song. TVIYH & I still collaborated on some songs including a rap song that I am not going to write about (you’re gonna have to find that one on your own) but never put another Silent E song into the competition. But that isn’t where the story ends. It’s just the point where the story goes from virtual into actual.

Fast forward to April 2006. Songfight decides to do a live concert in Pennsylvania. I was psyched but nervous. On one hand, I was finally getting a chance to meet a bunch of the musicians that I had been talking to and working with for the last 3 years. On the other hand, it would be my first time playing live in five years. It was anxiety and fear and a whole sea of emotions all wrapped together. It’s a strange thing to finally meet people that you’ve known for years and have never met and then try and make music with them in a church rec center. I walked in and met up with Eric and his wife Asya and immediately all the fear went away. I was with friends. Old dear friends even though this was the first time we were ever in a room together. It would end up being a phenomenal show. I butchered the French language while singing backup during Noah McLaughlin’s set. I performed for 2 crazy minutes during the Luke Henley set. I did a rendition of Gangsta’s Paradise during the end of the night jam session. And during my own set, Silent E performed live. We played “I Am Tempted” and it was a thing of beauty. We proved that Silent E could be something great.

Silent E

And then we never released another Songfight song…

But that still isn’t the end of the story. The next year, my life hit a snag. I had been living in New Brunswick. Our landlord basically started using the basement of the house as some kind of Russian immigrant hostel. When we complained about scary strangers sleeping where we did our laundry, the landlords retaliated by not renewing our lease and throwing us out. It was a tough time but my family survived and moved to another part of Jersey. It had been emotionally draining. I was in need of a mental break in the worst way and that break came quite unexpectedly. Eric & Asya almost out of nowhere offered to give me a plane ticket so I could come to their house in Pennsylvania. It was an amazing gift of generosity. What would ensue was just what the doctor ordered. Eric & I got into his homemade studio and rocked out for a weekend. I played electric guitar (that never happens!). We made a bunch of new tunes including a rocker called “Heat Wave”, an eerie piano murder-ballad called “Bridget” and an epic tune called “The Church at the End of the World” where we got Asya to help on the vocals. Add in some garage-sales, family get-togethers and a dinner at one of the most ridiculously named restaurants ever- Quaker Steak and Lube, it all made for one great experience that I am so grateful for. Not only did it help recharge my dying batteries but it helped remind me how awesome it was to just make music.

And you may be wondering whatever happened to those songs from that weekend. Who knows. We never released them. I don’t even have a copy and I’m not even sure if Eric still does. But it doesn’t really matter in the long run. The experience matters more. It had been a long long time since the break-up of my band Fear of Sleep and I basically hadn’t sat down in a room with a friend and just made a song in years. I didn’t realize just how much I missed that and just how fulfilling that could be, which leads to where we are currently in the story, kind of. I have had great experiences getting together with friends and making music throughout my life and I want more of that. And hopefully one day in the future, Niveous & TVIYH will come together as Silent E again, whether it be virtual or in real life.

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4 Responses to “Band Life, Chapter 2”

  1. Wow, very surreal reading this. What you described here are very fun memories — well, the happier parts of the story anyhow.

    I haven’t used that pseudonym in several years — I guess I retired it along with my ill-conceived notion of being able to work as a solo recording artist. I’m a mediocre writer at best, a lousy singer, and I never did learn how to play a guitar correctly (I eventually sold my guitar actually, although I still have the bass and drums collecting dust). I’m not just acting humble here; I just have learned how to recognize my own weaknesses.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, I do still have a copy of the raw tracks from everything we recorded together. It was always my intention to put them together and send you the final product, but again being aware of my shortcomings, I realize I don’t know much (or anything, really) about mixing and mastering and stuff. I never minded working on my own material, because I was always disappointed with it anyway, so it didn’t matter when it didn’t sound great. But you always wrote better material than I did, so I was too afraid to touch any of these songs. But like I said, they are still there.

    Anyway, it’s nice to hear about how much it meant to you, because I know you have been through some pretty rough times. And I’m especially glad to see that things seem much improved for you now!

  2. Thanks for the slice of history – I remember connecting for the first time with ‘friends’ from the scary internet. It’s awkward for a few minutes, and then pretty cool. And I’m still meeting more of them.

    I’m hoping to connect with Al face to face for the first time in over 20 years this month. Funny since we’ve been making music together for the last 3 in Song Fu, SpinTunes and Nur Ein. So I don’t know if it’ll be an epic fail or nirvana in the studio, but I”m sure it’ll be fun regardless.

    So it’s good to hear you’re getting things together, and remembering the good times but looking forward to new ones.

  3. Eric! It’s been a long time. I’d say don’t worry about ‘messing up’ the recordings, it would be good to hear them. And you might even get somebody more knowledgeable to master them.
    Yeah, Song Fight Presents in PA… that was odd, going in thinking “what exactly am I doing?” But the experience was excellent, even if I can’t listen to my songs now without cringing 🙂
    -bill

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